In 'Crossing,' glamour and glitz travel the high seas

December 28, 1992|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Staff Writer

John Maxtone-Graham is one of the world's great chroniclers of steamship travel. He has been entertaining those who enjoy ships and shipboard life for more than two decades through numerous travel articles and books.

"Crossing & Cruising" joins his earlier classics, "The Only Way to Cross" and "Liners to the Sun."

Mr. Maxtone-Graham has been a traveler on the high seas since 1930, when he traveled, at the age of 6 months, across the Atlantic aboard the liner Minnewaska. Thus, he knows his subject well.

He also knows that there are those in the reading audience who think the epitome of steamship travel is to be aboard the Aquitania sitting in the paneled smoking room, watching the sea light dance on the ceiling as the great liner plows on toward New York.

Or strolling into the grand salon of the Normandie, a vessel that he says calls up from deep in the soul "mystical reference." He describes the Normandie as "a paradigm of elegance, style and taste, the culmination of naval architecture as well as the shipwright's art."

Sadly, though, the great liners of old have gone to the breaker's yard with the exception of the Queen Mary. To this end, and knowing his readers so well, Mr. Maxtone-Graham has organized his chapters with a note that advises the traditionalists to stick to the odd-numbered ones, which deal with what was, and the even-numbered chapters, which deal with ships and cruising today.

He writes that while ships have changed, passenger dynamics have not. So life aboard ship is what it always has been -- either getting to the other side or simply having fun.

Today's ships, with such names as Crown Princess, Crystal Harmony or Royal Viking Sun, have more to do with their function as glitzy, Sybaritic pleasure domes. They appeal, he writes, to parvenues who have taken to the high seas at the urging of Kathie Lee Gifford belting out a commercial for a popular cruise line while surrounded by a battalion of Wayne Newton look-a-likes. This is not cruising in the traditional sense.

Cruising today, the author says, usually involves being taken to every tourist trap port in the West Indies and being exposed to a plethora of high-caloric food en route.

Shipboard life in the '90s is more than shuffleboard and a deck chair. Not many years ago, a tweed jacket, necktie and traveling cap, plus a well-cut suit of dinner clothes, defined the well-dressed trans-Atlantic male traveler. Today, that sartorial costume has been replaced by the thong bikini and polyester.

This book recalls past pleasures and defines the tenor of the business today through photographs documenting vessels as well as shipboard life. Mr. Maxtone-Graham's robust prose will recall the experience of travel by ship for those who remember it, and will sadden those who were too young to experience it.

This book should come in handy on winter nights when icy winds slam against the windows and the heart yearns for nothing more than a deck chair on a liner cruising through balmy latitudes. And put me down as an odd-chapter reader. Now, those were ships!

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Crossing & Cruising."

Author: John Maxtone-Graham.

Publisher: Scribner's.

Length, price: 311 pages, $30.

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